Night in Venice, Ocean City's annual boat parade and bayside celebration, soured this year for Capt. Brook Koeneke when a water balloon launched from a massive slingshot bloodied a 78-year-old passenger on his fishing boat.
A group of Ocean City neighbors from Delancey Place had chartered Koeneke's Duke O' Fluke pontoon boat, decorated it with a "Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer" theme to participate in the parade, and were leaving the Venetian Bayou Lagoon between Bayshore Drive and West 17th Street along the parade route, when the projectiles began to fly from within a row of multimillion-dollar waterfront homes hosting lavish parties.
Two water balloons missed, and the third struck John Patrick, a resident of the 200 block of Ocean Avenue in Ocean City, in the face. Patrick suffered a bloody nose and a swollen lip, according to Koeneke — minor injuries for which he would later refuse treatment from Ocean City Fire Department EMTs.
But the incident left Koeneke fuming, and he said this week that he's continuing to explore the possibility of a lawsuit against the owners of the property where he claims the water balloons were launched.
For Koeneke, the incident illustrates the dangerous side of the famously "wet" celebration in the dry town of Ocean City. Night in Venice includes hundreds of legal private parties along the bayfront during and after the boat parade — but the communal drunkenness often spills into public view and has long stood in contrast with the resort's carefully protected image as a family resort.
"If this kind of behavior is allowed to continue, there's going to be a tragedy," Koeneke said.
The incident is also a story of contemptuousness to Koeneke — when he left the parade and approached the property with his boat, the partygoers took no responsibility for the alleged incident and had no regard for the injured passenger.
"It's typical of the arrogant upper class," Koeneke said. "These were doctors, lawyers and educated adults standing there watching their adult children doing this kind of crap."
Koeneke said he saw six shirtless males — "all 20-something," as he estimated their ages — including three who were operating the slingshot, two holding the bands and one launching the balloon.
After the water balloon struck Patrick, Koeneke turned the boat around, radioed the Coast Guard to ask for assistance and got on the loudspeaker as he approached the property along Bayshore Drive on the south side of the lagoon.
The Ocean City Police Department and the Fire Department EMTs responded quickly, Koeneke said. But by the time police arrived, the young males had dissappeared into the house and the partygoers offered no assistance to police, according to Koeneke.
"There were a couple lawyers in the crowd," he said. "And the officers immediately encountered resistance."
According to the Ocean City Police Department incident report from July 28, officers arrived at 267 Bayshore Drive at 7:14 p.m. and later found and confiscated a water balloon launcher on the property. Koeneke said it had been thrown in the bushes.
The Duke O' Fluke had docked nearby, where Patrick refused treatment from EMTs and said he "did not wish any police action taken for this incident."
"There were approximately 30 people present for a Night in Venice party," the police report says. "All present at the party denied launching the water balloons."
Because Patrick did not want to press charges, police discontinued the investigation, and no charge was filed against anybody.
The police report lists the owner of the home as Pamela Stebbins, 60.
The property is among the , according to 2011 tax records. The records list the owners as Stebbins and Dr. David Arluck.
Stebbins did not return a call asking for her description of the incident.
Koeneke said Patrick had just had cataract surgery and was not wearing eyeglasses at the time he was struck by the water balloon. If he had been, Koeneke said, the injury could have been much worse.
"This wasn't just a slingshot," he said. "It was a weapon."
He said he grew up in an era when parents would hold their children accountable for their actions.
"If I had done something like that, I know what would have happened to me," Koeneke said. "And I would have stepped up and apologized. If that had happened, I wouldn't still be talking about this."
"I'm hoping the threat of a lawsuit will bring these punks forward."
Tom Murphy, the Somers Point lawyer representing Koeneke, said that any potential lawsuit would not include a victim who suffered damages — a common foundation of civil suits. But he said he is exploring other options.
"How much money should somebody have to spend to prove a point?" Murphy said. "And should he have to."
Mark Soifer, the long-time Ocean City public relations director who helps organize the event, said the boat parade has experienced similar incidents "off and on" throughout the years.
He said he plans to mail a letter to all bayfront property owners in January warning them of the dangers and consequences of such behavior.
"It's no joke," Soifer said.